Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shame, Support, and a Mormon Playwright

Note: On Thursday, November 5, 2015, I was invited to Skype in and speak to Kylie Nielson Turley’s Mormon Literature class about Mormon Drama. As they had already read my historical overview in Saints on Stage: An Anthology of Mormon Drama, I decided to go more personal. This is what I came up with, followed by a wonderful Q&A session…what a sharp class! This was NOT meant to be a commentary on recent events in the Church, on either side. Correlations between the relationship between the LDS and LGBT communities addressed in the essay are purely coincidental, in regards to the current controversy, and were not intended to be construed as any public statement regarding it.

Farewell to Eden Cast
Me and the 2004 cast of Farewell to Eden

I was at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in April of 2004 for the national festival for the American College Theatre Festival. It was a time of personal celebration and accomplishment for me, I was so happy to be there, feeling so lucky and blessed—it was the last place I was expecting a figurative gut punch.

Due to the support and mentorship of my playwriting professor James Arrington, my play Farewell to Eden had received its premiere at Utah Valley State College (now Utah Valley University) that previous November, and then had been invited to KCACTF’s regional festival in California. The play really excited a lot of the judges and audiences there, despite being a relatively religious play performing before chiefly secular audiences. Although the production itself didn’t advance to the national festival, I was invited to attend to receive a couple of awards for the writing of the play.

At the National Festival, I attended a workshop with Oskar Eustis, a renowned director, dramaturg, and theatre artist. He was the Artistic Director who commissioned and directed Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Angels in America in its premier in San Francisco at the Mark Taper Forum. As the subject of his workshop, he discussed the process of developing Angels in America and working with Tony Kushner, which was all very fascinating. I found his thoughts on the interaction between politics and theatre particularly interesting, and was enjoying his dynamic and personable style of speaking. It was also very fun hearing how the development of such a dynamic, famous, and powerful play came about. Eustis’s personal anecdotes about working with Tony Kushner were really insightful into the creative process, not to mention quite funny. Like I said, I was happy to be there. Grateful, even. I felt like I was among like-minded people celebrating an art form I loved, and listening at the feet of those who had accomplished great things within that art form. I was laughing, I was listening, I was enjoying myself.

Then came that gut punch. Obviously, since Eustis was talking about Angels in America, it was a distinct possibility that Mormonism was going to come up. Anyone with any cursory awareness of the two plays knows that it heavily features Mormon characters in conflict with LGBT characters, and draws heavily upon Mormon iconography with much of its symbolism and thematic material. However, despite its often aggressive stance against Mormons, Kushner also allows for some sympathetic treatment of Mormon characters with the character of Hannah, a tough and insightful LDS matriarch within the play. So, as a Mormon playwright myself, I thought that if my faith community came up, it would probably come up in a balanced way, stating some of our general flaws as a community, but also recognizing that not all Mormons are uniform in their beliefs, and that Mormons should be treated with the nuance and respect that any population grouping deserves.

Mormonism did come up, but not with nuance, and not with an eye towards sympathetic characterization.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

True Myths and Spiritual Words: Part Two


Note: This is the second part of an essay I have to write to accompany my thesis play for my MFA program in Dramatic Writing at Arizona State University.  The essay is meant to focus on my journey as a playwright, the development of my work at ASU, as well as the ideas and authors that have influenced my work (so pardon the navel gazing. It was part of the assignment...honest!). Part One can be found at:
Part Two, written more than a year ago before my graduation, is as follows:

At Arizona State University I have created a number of pieces that are now part of my repertoire:
1.     Evening Eucalyptus: A mythical Australian period drama set in the early 20th century, which explores the tortured return of Arthur Stevenson to his homeland of Australia after a traumatic experience in England. 
2 .      The Emperor Wolf:  This post-apocalyptic fairy tale unfolds on a future Earth torn apart by division and war, where mythical creatures have become the new ruling class. In this new world of sphinxes, griffins, fairies and goddesses, none of these are more fearsome than the Emperor Wolf. When Madeline and her blind mother, Ebony, meet the orphaned Shasta, they are pulled into a hero’s journey in which they confront this frightening new order and the Dark Being that has claimed the world. 
3.      Jimmy Stewart Goes to Hollywood: A biographical screenplay (I also adapted it into a stage version) about the actor Jimmy Stewart and his rise in (and personal conflict with) the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
4.      Myths: Four episodes of a spec TV series that explores a modern world being infiltrated by ancient mythology.  It creates a modern world of mystery, whimsy, secrets and intrigue which is both magical and increasingly dangerous, underlined by conspiracy laden politics, action and intrigue.
 5.      A Roof Overhead: A play about the conflict between a Mormon family, the Fieldings, and their atheistic tenant, Sam Forrest, who lives in their basement. 
  6.     Servers: A musical about the life struggles of a group of servers in a Mexican restaurant. 
  7.   Sense and Sensibility: An adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. 
  8.   Rings of the Tree (screenplay version): Diana Applesong has locked herself into her Victorian mansion, guarding herself from all loss and pain, allowing only the mysterious Colin and Echo to visit her and a small family of servants to assist her. Yet when a group of curious explorers stumble upon her cloistered existence, Diana finds herself struggling to maintain the false world she has created for herself.      
    9. Manifest: A play that adapts several world myths and weaves them together to show the universal life of humankind (most of the leg work on this play was done before my time at ASU).
  10.  Yeshua: A play that follows and expands on the story of Jesus Christ, especially influenced by the Gospel of John. Although ultimately a faith affirming and spiritual version of the Christian story, it also takes some untraditional approaches to the text (including a feminist lens and an unorthodox Mormon worldview).
  11.  A Nest of Women: A comedic play about the relationships between men and women. Three very different, Victorian bachelors—a Byronesque libertine, a gynophobic man who is studying to become a priest, and a scholar—invite a group of feminists to hold their meetings in their home, from which chaos, conflict, and love ensues. Not yet completed.
  12.  Cyrano, From Nowhere: A fantastical, lyrical, and philosophical take on the story of Cyrano that incorporates science fiction, satire, whimsy, unorthodox spirituality, and the old fashioned love of language.
The time and assistance I had at ASU was vital not only in the development of these works, but also in the development in my voice as a Dramatic Writer. It would be unlikely that a number of these plays, teleplays, and screenplays would even exist in any form if it hadn’t been for the experiences and mentorship that I have received here. There were moments of conflict with elements within department in the development of some of these works, but in general I felt that I have had a transformative experience that has sharpened my skills as a writer, challenged my thinking, expanded my horizons, and, ultimately, expanded my soul through a cathartic and enlarging three years as I’ve worked towards my MFA degree.
    Right before I came to ASU, I was a high school drama and creative writing teacher who had already been writing plays for several years. I received my bachelor degree in Theatre Arts from Utah Valley University in 2007. UVU had produced two of my plays on their mainstage (Farewell to Eden and Legends of Sleepy Hollow), as well as my senior capstone project (Rings of the Tree). Before I came to ASU, I wrote over a dozen plays, most of them produced by local groups in Utah like the New Play Project, Art City Playhouse, and the BYU Experimental Theatre Company.  I had also dabbled in screenwriting, adapting some of my plays into screenplay format.
UVU’s production of my first fully produced play Farewell to Eden had been invited to the Kennedy Center’s American College Theatre Festival Region VIII competition, and then I was invited to the national festival in Washington D.C. to receive their National Playwriting Award (Second Place) and a National Selection Team Fellowship. 
I also received awards from the Hale Centre Theatre and UVU, as well as having staged readings of some of my work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Brigham Young University.  I was also on track to having some of my work published by Zarahemla Books (a respected, but small Mormon publisher), including an anthology of important Mormon plays from various playwrights, for which I served as the compiler and editor.
Although through all of this I felt I had made a lot of progress as a playwright and received some recognition for my work, I was getting to the point where everything seemed to have plateaued. I was married with two kids, teaching at a charter school in Mesa, AZ, on a salary that we were struggling to subsist on. It was true that I had steadily been producing plays in Utah, from a distance in Arizona, but nothing that wasn’t on a level that I had already accomplished, and certainly nothing that was going to put food on our table for an extended period of time. My wife and Anne and were looking for a new direction in our lives, hopefully something that would expand our horizons and give us new opportunities to actually make a comfortable living.
Our life in Mesa had some positive elements because of my naturally meaningful (but emotionally taxing) job as a high school teacher of troubled youth. We lived in an apartment that was too small for our current family condition (having just had our second child) in a tough, impoverished neighborhood. My charter school teacher’s salary (in a state that devalues and underpays educators) was becoming increasingly inadequate, especially considering the difficult circumstances, troubled student body, and lack of resources that was the norm for that particular school. Also, my son, who has sensory processing disorder, had special needs that needed to be addressed, which brought in another level of stress, despite our overwhelming love for him. And the particular Mormon ward (congregation) we lived in had stringent, myopic, and unfriendly leadership that was beginning to affect the happiness of our spiritual life, as we felt our more open and accepting spirituality had little place there.
Life was tense and stagnant. A sense of unease, even desperation, was encroaching upon us. So Anne and I felt like there needed to be a change in our lives, something that opened new doors and new opportunities, so that we wouldn’t be caught in the same stagnant pool all of our lives. We needed progress. We needed hope.
One of the things that came up in our discussions about options was grad school. Although there are no guarantees of getting an academic, university job with an MFA degree, it at least opened up that possibility. It would also lend some credibility to me as a serious writer. If nothing else, it would up my pay grade if I decided to go back to teaching high school. As we pondered and prayed about grad school, it gave us that hope we were looking for.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

RISEN FROM THE DUST: "Freetown" Breathes New Life Into Mormon Cinema

Some time ago there were prognosticators who were crying that Mormon Cinema was dead. After an initially successful run with films like God's Army, The Other Side of Heaven, The Work and the Glory series (especially the second), Brigham City, Saints and Soldiers, The Best Two Years, and Single's Ward, the Mormon audience eventually began to turn away from their initial interest in Mormon filmmakers who were telling Mormon stories. There were many theories as to why this was. Perhaps the novelty wore off. Perhaps the genre got over saturated. Perhaps Mormonism had only so many stories to tell.

I believe another theory is more likely: Mormon audiences are not as stupid as certain filmmakers first assumed.

I once attended a lecture by Richard Dutcher, before he left the Mormon Cinema movement he founded, and the LDS Church he had once championed. Dutcher said something which I found both distressing and illuminating. Dutcher mentioned that he was once talking to another Mormon filmmaker who spoke derogatorily about the Mormon audience. "We could $#!* on a plate and they would eat it," the other filmmaker bragged. Dutcher, rightfully, was disgusted by this declaration, as he was aiming to make high art with his Mormon subject matter, and had a much higher opinion of Church members' discernment at the time. As we saw with Dutcher's films, he was one of Mormon Cinema's best auteurs at the time, and his approach was vastly different than some of his contemporaries in Mormon Cinema.

I kept that comment in mind as I saw Mormon Cinema spiral downward into a crass series of opportunistic movies that seemed to make fun of the culture and religion rather than thoughtfully exploring it; or, on the other hand, earnestly and unabashedly celebrating Mormonism, but without the talent and production value to do such an approach justice. After the first intriguing wave of legitimately good Mormon films, we had this run of pale imitators and cynical money grabbers that ran the once smoothly running vehicle into a wall. This, to me, was the real reason Mormon audiences stopped supporting the fledgling movement of faith based films: they knew when they were being made fun of, they knew when they were being used, they knew when their intelligence was being insulted, they knew when they weren't being taken seriously.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Discussing the Renaissance Over at _I'll Drown My Book_

I write on my arts blog about teaching the Renaissance in my Humanities class and one particular student's negative reaction to the movement:

Feel free to let me know your own thoughts, positive or negative, about the Renaissance in the site's comment section!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Raising the Book

NOTE: I just posted this at my new arts blog I'll Drown My Book. I am also posting it here because it explains this site's temporary hiatus for the last several months. But, no worries, we are now up and running again:

In William Shakespeare's The Tempest the protagonist-wizard Prospero gives a memorable and stirring speech. After a long exile on a desert island (where he has mastered his magic, raised a daughter, befriended/enslaved/mistreated a monster and a fairy, and lived a painful, imperfect, turbulent, yet enchanted life), Prospero is about to find the freedom from the island he has so long been drifting on and go back to the outside world.

In the speech, Prospero vividly describes the power his magical art gave him, but then declares his intent to give up that same magic before setting on his way home to Naples:
...But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
(Act V, Scene I)

Playing Prospero at Utah Valley University
In my undergrad years at Utah Valley University, I played Prospero in a unique and creative production directed at UVU by Christopher Clark. Taking a cue from Jacobean Theatre, Clark separated the bodies and voices of the characters (I played Prospero's body), making it similar to a human enacted puppet show. Due to this fact, as I played out Prospero's movement every night, I was able to listen to the words I was acting out, rather than focus on reciting them. The above speech stuck with me particularly and even before I had been cast in the play. I had long connected with the role of Prospero, despite some of the character's problematic flaws. So these words stuck out to me at this particular juncture of my life, and when I contemplated what I was going to name this new blog.

William Shakespeare wrote this play at the very end of his life (the general consensus is that either The Tempest or A Winter's Tale was his last play), so many read this speech as the great Bard retiring his playwriting and "breaking the staff" of his enchanted words. So I connected with that idea when I have contemplated the last several months of my life, which led away from my blog writing for a period. I took a sabbatical from online writing until recently for a few reasons: